The Most Destructive Influences on Christianity in South Africa #2: Robert Gray


The following is an excerpt from Dr Kevin Roy’s book “Zion City RSA” with a few alterations, additions and subtractions by me to make it more suitable for the blogging format. For the full bibliography see the bottom of the article

Robert Gray was born in 1809, the 7th son of an Anglican priest who later became the bishop of Bristol. Arriving in Oxford in 1828 he experienced the excitement of the stirrings of the Oxford Movement. Leaders of the Oxford Movement believed the church to be a divinely instituted body, governed by bishops standing in true apostolic succession and administering sacraments that were effective means of grace by the institution of Christ himself. These Tractarians or Anglo-Catholics (other names for adherents of the Oxford Movement) were opposed to the state control of the church and critical of the Protestant Reformation with its anti-Catholic tendencies (as they saw it). They sought to revive the doctrines and practices of the early and undivided Catholic church of the fourth century, before the corruptions of the medieval papacy and the divisions and alleged ‘heresies’ of Protestantism. Gray was undoubtedly influenced by this Oxford Movement.

He was ordained in 1834, and served two parishes in England for about thirteen years, during which time he also became a secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), an Anglican missionary society founded in 1701 with a special responsibility for congregations in British dependencies.

Gray’s interest in missions was surely a factor which led to his appointment as the first bishop of Cape Town. A few observations he wrote down on arriving there in 1848 illustrate his own thinking and contain portents of future struggles and conflicts awaiting him:

I landed in the afternoon with Sophy [his wife] and Douglas [the ordained son of an Earl], and Douglas read prayers in the Cathedral in the evening, where there was a tolerable congregation. St. George’s is decidedly the best ecclesiastical building in the town. Church matters are in a bad state. I am told there is a party ripe for anything, and full of suspicions and jealousies. The Baptismal Regeneration controversy is raging, and the pulpit of the Cathedral has been used for proclaiming pamphlets against that doctrine of the Church. I feel the great need there is of judgement, prudence, and forbearance, and how much I shall need all your prayers in a very trying and delicate position….As to our Church here, the only two clergy belong to a little evangelical alliance, one holds prayer-meetings in a school, the other officiates in a school at Green Point, turn about with dissenters. In the cathedral last Sunday a school was taught with an American catechism… I have declined to interfere, choosing to take time for everything[i].

Gray’s somewhat critical references to his clergy and their evangelical tendencies (fraternizing with dissenters – presumably Methodists, Congregationalist, or Presbyterians – and opposing the doctrine of Baptism Regeneration) reflects the war of words that was being waged within the Church of England at that time between Anglo-Catholic Tractarians and Protestant Evangelicals. The latter saw in the Oxford Movement a Romanizing tendency which they feared would ultimately undermine the Protestant character of the English people and their national church. This conflict was to produce a division among South African Anglicans which has persisted till today.

Gray devoted himself to the organization of the church as an autonomous, self-governing church within the Anglican communion, recognizing the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘first among equals’ but firmly rejecting any judicial authority of the British state over the church in South Africa. These moves were entirely in keeping with the ideals of the Oxford Movement. However, as many of his detractors predicted, he would now be able to steer an autonomous church in a Romewards direction unacceptable to Anglicans of Low Church and evangelical sympathies. For this reason they fought to keep the ties with the home country, as this would safeguard, they believed, the rights of Protestant and Reformed views within the Church of England. This fundamental conflict between Gray and some of his clergy was to lead to many unedifying court cases in which the various parties struggled over property rights, rights of appointments and such like. It also contributed to the tremendous struggle between Gray and Colenso over matters of doctrine and polity, a conflict which reverberated around the Anglican Communion throughout the world.

Notwithstanding all these difficulties, Gray was able to achieve his goal when in 1870 the first Provincial Synod was held and a constitution for the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA) approved. By the famous ‘Third Proviso’ in the canons of this constitution, the Privy Council of Britain was excluded as a Court of Appeal for the South African Church. Gray was confirmed as the Metropolitan of the Church of the Province. The title ‘Metropolitan’, common in the church of the fourth century, was later dropped in favour of the more familiar ‘Archbishop’.

While Gray may not be an obvious choice for a destructive influence, he definitely had a pernicious influence that took root over time till it erupted in negative influences.

images (1)Despite the Roman tendencies of much of Anglicanism in South Africa as a result of Gray’s influence, and subsequent spiral into liberalism, there were clergy and congregations who refused to recognize the 1870 synod, or the Church of the Province born out of it. These believers formed the Church of England in South Africa (CESA) a continuation of authentic Anglicanism in South Africa. CESA (now called REACH). Though much smaller than the CPSA and not recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion; it nevertheless maintains links with like-minded Anglicans worldwide and has produced many worthy labourers who have made an honourable contribution to building the Kingdom of God in South Africa.


This paper is an extract from the following book, with a few additions and edits by me: Roy, Kevin . Zion City RSA. The Story of the Church in South Africa. Page 84-85. (Cape Town, South African Baptist Historical Society 2000); Hofmeyr, J. & Pillay, G. J., 1994. A History of Christianity in South Africa. Pretoria: HAUM Tertiary

[i] Hofmeyr, J.W., Millard, J.A. & Froneman, C.J.J. History of the Church in South Africa: a Document and Source Book (Pretoria, UNISA, 1991), p.91.

  3 comments for “The Most Destructive Influences on Christianity in South Africa #2: Robert Gray

  1. March 19, 2015 at 10:39 am

    The Oxford movement was the best thing that ever happened to the Anglican Church. Just a pity it failed.

  2. Apostle Niklaas Mohoje
    March 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Great teaching and renowned historical background

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